Communist, But Clever

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

IN HIS THIRTY-FIVE years of life, Paul Nizan was a key intellectual in the French Communist Party. He published three novels, polemical essays, translations and a large quantity of militant journalism on home and foreign affairs. He left the Party on the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939. In his excellent study, Michael Scriven […]

La Vie en Prose

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Note the subtitle: ‘Half a Lifetime’. Take that, A Year in Provence. To write about la France profonde with authority, you have to put in the hours. Adam Thorpe and his family moved from England to the rugged Cévennes region of southern France in 1990, renting a former olive mill for three years before buying […]

Architect of State

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Emmanuel Macron, it seems, is a leader of France who has great personal charm and determination – enough charm, indeed, judged by their recent meeting, to delight even that most lumpen of creatures, his American counterpart, Donald Trump. He has much in common, then (except height), with King Francis I, who, according to the subtitle […]

Man of Les People

Posted on by Tom Fleming

In 2011 Emmanuel Macron, no stranger to statements of the obvious, wrote in Esprit: ‘Everything ought not to be expected of one man. The 2012 presidential election will no more deliver us a demiurge, a mechanic of the universe, than any previous election has … The reconstruction of responsible politics cannot be effected by personal charisma, by a compact between an absolutist and his people

He Paid For His Own Electricity

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Who was Charles de Gaulle? Stop the clock in 1939 and he was an eccentric army officer. Stop it in July 1940, after he had flown to London, and he was claiming to represent France against the Vichy regime – though some Englishmen admired this right-wing Catholic because they thought of him as almost as much of an opponent of the Third Republic as he was of the Vichy state. Stop the clock in 1945 and he was head of the French government, supported by republicans and even communists. Stop it a year later and he had resigned in a huff; his career was apparently over. The British ambassador to Paris wrote: ‘On … the eve of the anniversary of Louis XVI’s execution, General de Gaulle cut off his own head and passed into the shadow-land of politics.’

Man on a Bicycle

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Emile Zola appears to have been a man of considerable energy. Besides the novels, plays, reviews and polemic, he ran two separate households, one for his wife Alexandrine, the other with his great love Jeanne Rozerot and their two children. He designed extensions to his official country residence at Medan, and to get from one house […]

Right Royal Majesty

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

‘The Parisian press called the assassination of the twenty-nine-year-old Italian widow, Laetitia Toureaux a perfect crime,’ begin the authors of this book. After spending a Sunday afternoon at a dance hall, Toureaux boarded the Métro and took a place in an otherwise empty first-class carriage: At 6.27pm the train left the station. When it arrived […]

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Beau Geste Revisited

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

It is a paradox that the legend of the Foreign Legion should have such international currency and that, in this country at least, it should rest on a deeply ambiguous adventure and mystery novel, P C Wren’s Beau Geste. Beau Geste was in no conceivable manner clear advertising for the Legion and its values. The […]

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An Affair To Remember

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Horace was right, ‘Bis repetita placent’: people like to hear the same stories all over again. Why else should Ruth Harris add yet another volume to the fat library of material, ancient and modern, on the Dreyfus Affair? Her justification has to be either that she has new evidence or that her style will refresh […]

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Melancholic Prophet

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Charles de Gaulle is France’s favourite national hero, embodying the country’s highest collective ideals: devotion to public service, patriotism, military valour, and personal integrity (he paid his own electricity bills when he was president). He is also a literary giant: ever since their publication in the 1950s, his War Memoirs have become one of the […]

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One Long Party?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In November 1575 King Henri III of France and his mother, Catherine de’ Medici, amused themselves in the streets of Paris snatching lapdogs from nuns; three years earlier during the reign of Henry’s brother and predecessor, Charles IX, the quarry had been Huguenots hunted down and killed in the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, allegedly again […]

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Vaulting Ambition

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Nicolas Foucquet (1615–80) was a well-read man, but, like most Frenchmen of his time, he had probably scarcely heard of Shakespeare, and almost certainly never seen or read his plays. Had he done so, he might have taken note of Macbeth’s remarks about ‘vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself and falls on th’other’, for his ambition […]

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Vive La Republique

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

During the long nineteenth century, the French learnt to ‘give time its just preponderance’, in the words of the positivist philosopher Emile Littré. This did not come easily or naturally. As the first part of Robert Gildea’s elegantly written book shows, the French struggled repeatedly to lay to rest the painful conflicts provoked by the […]

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